It is early on the morning of January 7, 2019, and today, I am making my official return to work—two months to the date of my ankle surgery.
For the most part, I am now walking in a motion-control boot without the added support of prosthetics. I tend only to use crutches when first waking in the morning or after long stretches of time when fatigue sets in (or when I am not wearing my boot, which I suspect won’t happen too much while I am at the office, or when I am teaching).
My feelings about my return to work are mixed, as you might imagine. Believe me when I say that there was very little about the past two months that was at all fun or relaxing. Being confined to the couch for weeks on end without the benefit of daily showers and human interaction isn’t exactly what the best breaks from work are made of. Even after I was cleared to be somewhat mobile, every single task—from making my morning cereal to completing my regimen of physical therapy—took an inordinately long period of time. I think, all told, I averaged just over an hour to rise, pour cereal and coffee, bring that cereal and coffee to a place where it could be consumed, and then, well, to eat breakfast.
Putting all of that in the rearview is a great, great feeling. The best feeling. Tremendous, really. Today is unimpeachably the most successful January 7 of all time.
But despite what I’ve gained—and I have gained a lot—I am still fairly compromised in a variety of daily activities. I still cannot stand in the shower—you have absolutely no idea the torture of showering, seated, with one foot elevated—nor can I walk barefoot. I can’t wear much in the way of clothing, because none of my proper dress pants fit over my boot. I’m still very wobbly on my feet because I don’t have full range of motion yet, and my lateral ankle mobility is very limited, meaning that even the smallest of sidewalk cracks can send me tumbling (I actually haven’t fallen, yet, though).
And, of course, I still cannot run, or even exercise much. The estimates about my “return to normal activity” vary wildly, ranging from six to eighteen months. A six-month date would put me at this April, which I fully expect is going to be too soon. Eighteen months, on the other hand, will put me at next April—April 2020—which is excruciatingly far away.
This is to say nothing of the you-will-never-run-again prognosis that far too many medical people in my life seem to like to dispense.
The reason I bring all of this up, aside from the obvious, is that today, I am returning to two jobs that require me to direct an extensive amount of emotional and intellectual energy toward the needs of others. Though one of my jobs is a “desk job” in a fairly traditional sense, that job is one that facilitates university access for students. Therefore, I manage a highly specialized, individualized caseload where each student’s needs must be handled uniquely.
What is challenging for me right now is that I genuinely do not know how much energy I have to give to other people. I still have needs—physical and emotional needs—and I don’t know how equipped I am to prioritize the needs of others over my own at this one very particular point in my life.
Universities are strange places. They position students as adults, and they frequently—and quite rightly—take student demands with the seriousness that they deserve. Simultaneously, universities infantilize their students, catering to parental and trustee demands for “satisfaction” with casual regard for educational rigor and consistency.
My recent thinking about this tension has caused me to question the ethics of professor-student interactions. Specifically, I am wondering what exactly it means for students (read: adults) to make demands of professors (read: other adults) who themselves are in compromised/weakened/sick/suffering states.
You see, there is a rather fanciful cultural perception of professors—possessed even by many university administrators who, ironically enough, spend their days gutting funding for university professors (if not eliminating their jobs altogether)—that they are somehow all-powerful, their danger to the well-being of our entire social fabric tempered only by their aloofness and their relative absence from the classroom (because, you see, professors “only care about researching”). Here I ask: if professors never teach, or are really bad at teaching because they only care about their research, how dangerous can they be?
And that’s my point: the above apocrypha is lunkheaded, the talking points of the laziest news show pundit, the kind of defensive nonsense that only reaffirms its opposite: professors are people—complicated imperfect people, just like you.
Some professors are good. Some professors are bad. Some professors care mostly about their research. Some professors care mostly about their teaching. All professors are human, and like all humans, they might just not be up to it today.
Which is where I am today. I’m not up to it.
This evening, when I finish a full day of administrative work, I will take my crutches, and all of my teaching materials, and I will walk to the subway. When I arrive at the subway stop for my satellite campus, I will walk about one quarter of a mile from the subway to the building where I teach. I will then teach for three hours, and when I am finished, I will wait on the sidewalk for a bus, which will take me the thirty minutes back to my home.
Tomorrow, I will awake to return to the office at the usual start time.
During the month of December, when I was still walking with a prosthetic and could not put weight on my foot, I spent a significant amount of time preparing my syllabus for my spring class—the one that I am teaching this evening. Technically, I was “on leave” at that time, but that fact matters little when there is a class to prepare.
What does it mean, let’s say, for another adult to say to me, tonight, that traffic was the reason for a tardy arrival? Would I, another adult, be in the wrong for not being sympathetic to traffic, given all of the above?
What about the inevitable excuses about late work? How do I respond to those excuses, knowing that I had no choice but literally to write my syllabus one leg? Lateness was not a privilege to which I had access. After all, there are teaching evaluations to consider: Professor Fisher’s syllabus was a mess on the first night of class, and I never had any idea when my assignments were due. Terrible class.
Would I be a bad person—nay, a bad dangerous professor—if I just did not want to entertain such excuses from another adult because I couldn’t ask for the same leniency as an adult myself?
The banality of these matters should not belie their significance. This is most of the job of teaching—endlessly negotiating expectations and timelines and administrative details. Contrary to popular belief, composition teachers do not receive research leave to search for the Holy Grail and to save the world from Nazis. Most of what we do is work in very close quarters with other people, which means that these interpersonal questions hit at a significant essence of what professors need to shoulder every time that they enter a classroom.
Right now, I am a professor who has experienced a significant physical injury, one whose permanence remains an open question, and one whose damage to my emotional health has been exceedingly large. If I am to recognize these potentialities in others, for any related or unrelated circumstance, it is vital that they recognize these realities in me.
This reciprocal respect is not too much for any college professor to ask of any college student.
–January 7, 2019